March gladness. Rick Majerus and his Bumpin', Pickin' Utes are going to the national championship game, and now there may be no stopping them. Who can figure them out?
Certainly not those bluebloods from North Carolina, who fell to Utah 65-59 Saturday night in San Antonio. The Tar Heels, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, were so frustrated by Utah's bump-and-grind defense on Saturday night that they were spitting mad. Literally. Senior Makhtar Ndiaye, unable to shake 18-year-old Britton Johnsen's blanket defense, spit in his face as they ran up the court. And that was in the first half."Look at me, I'm a hundred pounds and I'm kickin' your butt," Johnsen told Ndiaye.
The Utes will do that to you. They're supposed to be slow and earthbound and skinny and all those other things, but they keep knocking off all the glamour teams, in large part because of their relentless, physical defense. Arkansas one week, Arizona the next, now Carolina. They aren't going to win any pretty contests, but they might just win the national championship.
The Final Four is now the Final Two and Utah is invited. On Monday night, the Utes will meet - wouldn't you know it? - Kentucky, a team that has booted them from the NCAA tournament three times in the past four years.
"I don't even know what to say," said Johnsen. "I'm awestruck. I've dreamed of this your whole life and now I'm here. It's weird."
No sooner had the Utes - 30-3 and counting - dispatched North Carolina than they were planning for an encore. "Hey, we got one more," Majerus reminded them in the locker room. "Enjoy this, and then let's get ready for Monday. I'm proud of every one of you."
Majerus need not worry. How focused are the Utes? On Friday, they practiced for an hour in the Alamodome under giant, brightly colored banners. You couldn't miss them. But afterward, when someone asked him about the banners, guard Andre Miller said, "What banners?"
The subplot all week was wondering what Majerus had up his sleeve. What would this year's hoops genius come up with. His players noted was that he was unusually calm, which seemed to indicate confidence. He even found time to enjoy San Antonio. He was out on the River Walk earlier this week on his way to a restaurant when he realized that he had forgotten his wallet. Just then he bumped into North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge and asked him for a $50 loan. Guthridge figured that wasn't enough to feed Majerus and gave him $100.
Payback was ugly. Right from the start, the Utes took charge of Guthridge's Tar Heels. They opened a 16-point lead in the first half, much as they did against defending national champion Arizona a week earlier.
At halftime, Majerus told his team, "You've played great so far, but they are going to give us a run. Keep attacking."
And so they did. The Tar Heels cut the Ute lead to two points late in the game, but the Utes, who melted under such pressure earlier this season, stared it down. "It's not over! It's not over!" the Utes shouted from the bench. Majerus scanned his notes and ordered a couple of plays that helped turn the momentum. "They were great calls," assistant Jeff Judkins would say. Majerus called an out of bounds play to Hanno Mottola that resulted in a huge bucket. He called another play - "Shooter" - for Andre Miller, who came off a screen, caught the in-bounds pass and dashed coast to coast for a short jump shot.
And then Drew Hansen found himself at the foul line with the Utes holding a precarious 59-55 lead and only 49 seconds left. "I was nervous," he said. That's because Hansen had missed crunch-time free throws at various times this season, including a tournament game against West Virginia that nearly cost a victory. Judkins analyzed videotape of Hansen's misses and told him he was shooting long in clutch situations, perhaps from adrenaline. He told Hansen to step back two inches from the foul line. Hansen did just that and made both shots to clinch the victory.
"It was a wonderful evening of basketball," Majerus said. Especially if you were Utah.
The Tar Heels, like Arizona before them, never could figure out the Utes. They were supposed to be the most athletic team in the country. Conventional wisdom said the Utes were too slow and too unathletic to play them in a man-to-man defense, which they use almost exclusively.
But the Utes bristled at that suggestion. "We heard Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps (on TV) say that we'd have to play a 2-3 zone," said Hansen. "They don't know anything. We were ticked."
Midway through the second half, it was the Utes who were playing man-to-man defense and the Tar Heels who were playing zone. "Is that ironic, or what?" said Hansen.
The Tar Heels simply could not handle the relentless wave of picks by the Ute offense and abandoned their normal defense. The day before the game, Judkins had predicted as much. Asked why the Utes would win, he said. "Because they have never played a physical team like ours. We screen. We put bodies on people."
During the Utes' first practice in San Antonio, Majerus told the Utes, "They're not a team that likes to get bodies put on them. They'll get frustrated."
And they did. The Tar Heels began jawing at the Utes midway through the first half. Ndiaye, the spitter, decked Hansen with an elbow and drew a foul. "It was a flagrant cheap shot," said Hansen.
"They were yelling at each other," said Johnsen. "And they were complaining to the refs. They were definitely frustrated."
The Utes were big underdogs, but they made a team goal: Hold Carolina to 55 points. They missed by just four points.
And so after 32 years of waiting to return to the Final Four, the Utes have now made it to the Final Two for the first time in 54 years. "The kids have wanted to play Kentucky," said Judkins. Now they've got them, and they're just one game away from winning a national championship.
Watch game at U.?
University of Utah officials indicated on Friday that if the Utes won Saturday, the school would open the Huntsman Center for Monday's NCAA final game and show it on the center's Jumbotron.